TRIBUTE: THE VISIONARY FARMERS OF KARACHI

Published October 10, 2021
Mahmood Futehally
Mahmood Futehally

Tucked away between the overcrowded concrete jungle of Gulshan-i-Iqbal and the bustling Lyari Expressway that swirls over the dry Lyari River, was the humble farm of a 102-year-old organic farmer, Mahmood Futehally, and his wife Fatima.

I was in my twenties when I met the inspiring couple for the first time. In July 2010, a group of nature lovers was looking for a place to meet up as members of a society to promote green living. Someone suggested that we meet at the Sohana Research Farm in Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

Next Sunday, as the car zig-zagged on the narrow, uneven roads between huge apartment buildings, I was certain that we had lost the way. Soon the car stopped in front of an old-fashioned metal gate and I saw a graceful, white-haired man, dressed in khaki pants and a crisp white short-sleeved shirt. His hands elegantly placed on his walking stick, his heartwarming smile welcomed us. This was Mahmood Uncle.

A huge windmill set up by Futehally at his farm  | Photos by the writer
A huge windmill set up by Futehally at his farm | Photos by the writer

During the two-acre farm tour, I was amazed to see an RO (reverse osmosis) water filtration plant powered by a giant windmill, a bio-gas plant that supplied gas to his kitchen, and a vermicomposting site that used fast-growing nitrogen-rich trees around the farm.

Grapevines, citrus and mulberry bushes, cheeku and some other 50-year-old trees surrounded the two-bedroom house and his small office. Even more awe-inspiring was the organic farm, a network of drip-irrigation pipes, and fuel-less farming tools that Mahmood Uncle had invented.

Mahmood Futehally and his wife Fatima were innovative organic farmers who turned their Karachi agricultural land into an urban farm far ahead of its time. They are no more, but their story remains as inspiring as ever

With a group of activists following him around, Futehally — then in his nineties — would bend down to touch the soil, hold it in his hands, and show us its texture. He explained how the RO system worked and how the high-rise buildings suck up underground water. He also showed us how to use his gudai (hoeing) machine and demonstrated how to fix potholes using cement that is wasted while plastering walls.

Fatima Aunty joined us wearing a grey cotton sari, her gray hair rolled up in a bun, perfect posture even when using a tetrapod stick to walk. That day, I fell in love with the couple, and their farm.

Sitting under a canopy covered with dry coconut palm leaves, I loved listening to Mahmood Uncle’s vision and dreams. Sometimes, Mahmood Uncle would look at the high Lyari Expressway, visible over the low brick wall, and recall stories from the past.

He had moved to Pakistan in 1948 and bought a few acres of farming land beside the then gushing Lyari River. Sohana farm, as he called it, was a tranquil space away from the buzzing city. Some ambassadors and foreigners also owned farms here for leisurely weekends.

Being an agriculture scientist, Futehally gradually developed his farm into the Sohana Research Farm, a self-sustaining system, with models of forestation techniques, composting sites, organic pest control solutions, an RO plant, and bio-gas production. The farm attracted learners and nature lovers.  

In the late 1970s, Futehally teamed up with Professor Dr Karar Hussain and other like-minded people to form the Greener Karachi Trust for planting trees on traffic islands, and their first major project was on the road between Water Pump and the Sohrab Goth roundabout. “My father and I met Futehally for the first time at his farm, long before the surrounding area was named Gulshan-i-Iqbal,” recalls Shabih Haider, Karar Hussain’s son. “I have yet to meet a more positive person, for whom hurdles and failures were learning lessons.”

Fatima Aunty watches Futehally mending a pot hole
Fatima Aunty watches Futehally mending a pot hole

Haider highlighted some unique elements of their first project. “Ipil-ipil or river tamarind, a fast-growing tree was planted for a rapid green cover,” he says. “Instead of water supplied by Baldia, these trees were irrigated using subsoil water, pumped up by a windmill into a huge tank at the highest point of the traffic island. Using gravity, the system was energy-efficient, while drip irrigation was used to avoid water wastage.”  

Abid Lakhani, an old family friend of the Futehallys, witnessed how the farm gradually became influenced by climate change, Karachi’s politics and urbanisation. “Futehally was passionate about bringing change in our people,” says Lakhani, who first visited the farm as a child, but presently is the Chief Financial Officer and company secretary of the Futehally group of companies.

“He strongly believed that a few persevering people could set off a chain reaction in the community, and across the country, to rid the nation of its many vices. The couple would organise garbage cleaning drives in their area on Sunday mornings, to create awareness and a sense of responsibility in the community. He insisted that each one of us, including himself, would be answerable to the Almighty for not making an effort to bring about change.”

We met on Sundays for several years. “What should we do that would bring about a big change?” Mahmood Uncle would often ask me in Gujarati. The couples’ presence was enough to motivate people to come out and work together. Besides social and environmental activism and voluntarism, Mahmood Uncle’s personality had so much to offer.

In over a decade of my interaction with him, and as the vice president of the Greener Karachi Trust for some time, I never saw any refreshments being served at work-related meetings. Occasionally, Fatima Aunty would bring home-grown cherry tomatoes for me to my office, which was adjacent to her home.

Once, she surprised me with a dinner invitation. Placing a huge pot of biryani on the table, Fatima Aunty said, “We don’t get into formalities.” That night, sitting around the dining table, we cracked jokes and shared laughter.

In the following years, pollution increased in Karachi, the underground water became hard, termites destroyed their land, the gushing Lyari River dried up and, even with the RO, they could barely grow crops at the farm. New high-rise buildings sucked up all the water from pipelines. In short, they had nothing to hold on to. Eventually, after crossing 100 years, Mahmood Uncle and Fatima Aunty moved to Bombay, to live with their family.

Futehally passed away three years ago, and this year, on his third death anniversary, Fatima Aunty — who had become bedridden after her husband’s demise — also passed away in Mumbai. This overwhelming news brought to surface memories that I thought most people in this city will never know, unless I attempted to write their story.

I have never seen people like them, and I am sure I never will. I can only wish their beautiful story is remembered and emulated by future generations.

Zahra Ali Syed is an environmentalist, sustainability educator and founder of Crops in Pots and The Green Pilgrim. She can be reached at zahra@cropsinpots.pk

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 10th, 2021

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